What you say to your kids at the dinner table is just as important as what you serve. The messages you give your children about mealtime and food can have a powerful effect–so make sure you're sending the right ones. Here are five statements to avoid:
1. "You can have dessert if you eat your asparagus." No food–including dessert–should be held up as a reward (or withheld as a punishment). Not only does it elevate dessert to super-special status, but it sends the message that you have to eat the "yucky" stuff to get to the "yummy" stuff. If you're serving dessert, all family members should be given the choice to have it, regardless of how much they ate at their meal. If your child only wants to eat dessert and no actual dinner food, try limiting dessert to only occasionally. You can also try serving dessert WITH dinner–sounds crazy but it works for some kids. Read more about that strategy here.
2. "You're so picky." I use the term "picky eaters" in my writing because it's a catch-all name that parents understand. But I've never called my kids "picky", even though they definitely have habits that could put them in that category. Placing any kind of label onto your child isn't helpful. Call your child "picky" and this is what they might internalize: "I'm a kid who doesn't like a lot of foods and is afraid to try new things."
3. "Eat five more bites of chicken and three more bites of peas." I understand the intention behind this one: You don't think your child has eaten enough of the "good" stuff or he's eaten mostly potatoes and bread and his meal doesn't feel balanced to you. But it doesn't help your child to dictate how much they have to eat (would you like it if someone did that to you?). I'm actually a recovering bite-enforcer myself. I stopped several years ago, when my son turned to me at dinner one night and said 'How many more bites do I have to take?'. In that moment, I realized how unproductive it was. How could my son ever learn how to eat when he was hungry and stop when he was full if I was giving him a bite quota?
4. "You wouldn't like it." Even if you're 99 percent sure your child won't like something, never discourage her from trying. It's okay to give a heads-up that something is spicy. Otherwise, be open and encouraging. I learned this lesson on a recent road-trip. My son wanted to order onion rings, and I was convinced he wouldn't like them (since he doesn't like onions in anything else). Read what happened next here.
5. "You have to try it." The "one-bite rule" works great for some kids (like my older son) and encourages them to try things they otherwise may not have. But for other kids (like my younger son), it can create a battle at the dinner table. Read about alternatives to the "one-bite rule" in my post Why I Don't Make My Kids Take 'Just One Bite'.
Is there anything else you'd add to this list?
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She is the author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.
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